(USMiltary.com) I was 12 years old when my brother Mike was killed in Viet Nam. It was early on a Saturday morning, late November, 1968, when there was a knock at the door. My Dad was upstairs shaving, and my Mom was in the kitchen making breakfast. I answered the door, and there was an Army soldier in his Class A uniform. He asked to see my Mom and Dad. My Dad called out “Who is at the door?” I answered, “It’s a guy from the Army.” I heard the frying pan hit the kitchen floor, and that’s when I knew.
Mike was the guy that everyone looked up to and respected. He excelled at sports, and his athletic ability was well known. He was very good looking, so he never had a problem finding a date. He was like so many young men of his generation who wanted to do his service, and then come home and start a life. He was engaged to be married when he was killed.
My brother was subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor. His commanding officer, General Sam Wetzel, who was a Lt. Col. At the time, submitted him for that honor. My older brothers and my parents went to the White House where President Nixon awarded them the Medal. My parents smiled in the photo, I’m sure because it’s such an honor to meet the President, but that hid how they really felt. They grieved silently until the good Lord called them home. No one talked about it, there were no support groups for Gold Star families, and the nation turned its back on the Viet Nam service members and their families. Back then there was a stigma involved if you tried to seek help. My parents never got over it. They never made a big deal about Mike’s Medal, because they knew there were other parents grieving over the loss of their sons and daughters. My friends did not know what to say to me, so nobody really said anything. There was just this awful void, and no way to deal with it.
Forty years after Mike’s death, we had his body moved from the cemetery outside of Philadelphia to Arlington National Cemetery. No one from the family lived in Philly anymore, and no one else was going to be buried in the plot. Mom and Dad were in a Veterans’ Cemetery in south New Jersey, where they had retired. The thought of Mike’s earthly remains being there alone forever was very troubling to me. My brothers and I agreed to have him moved, and that’s when it became evident to me that so many of his comrades never got over what happened. People came in droves from all over the country – some who were childhood friends, some who served with him in Viet Nam, family and friends, and many others who were complete strangers, but needed to be there. This was the funeral they couldn’t attend when they were serving, and the respect that they didn’t get when they came home. After this, things started happening. Veterans took it upon themselves to find ways to honor Mike’s memory. The VA Hospital in Philadelphia was renamed after him, and the Viet Nam veterans in Philly had a statue commissioned and placed at the Philadelphia Viet Nam Wall, where the names of 648 service members are remembered. Even the little town of Sea Isle City, NJ, erected a street sign in his name on the block where the family had a summer home. A VFW post in Philly was also renamed after him.
Fifty-two years later, Mike’s friends continue to pray for him, and they still wish he was here. Mike’s CO, Gen. Wetzel, carries a list in his pocket that has the names of all the men he lost in the battle took Mike’s life. He attends Mass every day, and every day he prays for them. One of Mike’s friends still carries a prom photo of him and Mike with their dates in his wallet. Some of Mike’s friends still to this day find it hard to talk about. It is just too difficult, too emotional. The medic from Mike’s unit, Doc Stafford, has become a close family friend. He told us he thought many times of contacting Mike’s parents but couldn’t bring himself to do it. I guess you could call it survivor’s guilt. The point is that these guys become very close in a life-and-death situation, and they also take it as hard as a Gold Star family would.
Today, there are many resources to help Gold Star families that were not available in my parents’ time. When a loved one’s body is returned to the family, it is done so with the utmost dignity and respect. Returning service members are welcomed home with celebrations, and that’s how it should be. Many good things have happened because of my brother’s actions and his award, and I have met a lot of great people because of it. But if you ask me f I would rather have all of that or my brother, I would take my brother. I’m sure that every Gold Star family feels the same way.
Written by Joe Crescenz for USMilitary.com